(RUSSIA, 1856-1894 – continued)

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Freeing the Serfs

In 1856, Tsar Alexander II spoke before the gentry of Moscow and asked them to consider emancipating their serfs, adding that it would be better to begin to abolish serfdom from above rather than wait for a rising from below. Preparing the way for the more liberal and self-regulating society that was a part of the economically advanced societies in the West, Alexander described his government's new policy as glasnost (openness), including greater freedom of the press and thought. He said that censorship was to remain and that there remained a need to exercise "judicious vigilance." But, he said, it ought not "inhibit thinking."

In 1858, committees of gentry gathered in Russia's various provinces, and, representing the gentry in general, nine met in what was called a Main Committee, at St. Petersburg, and they agreed to the abolition of serfdom. Then in March 1861 (on the same day that Abraham Lincoln took his oath of office) Alexander issued his Emancipation Manifesto. In charge of the program of emancipation was the adjutant-general, Count Panin, who had owned 20,000 serfs. The lords were to receive compensation in the form of treasury bonds, and the freed serfs were to pay for their freedom not as individuals but collectively. Except in the Ukraine and a few other areas, lands were distributed to communities of former serfs – communities called communes. Government officials hoped that a commune of freed serfs would be more responsible than scattered individuals, and that communes would prevent the creation of numerous isolated persons without property. It was the commune that was to be responsible for distributing land to the former serfs, for collecting taxes and providing recruits for the military and other obligations.

Payments by freed serfs to the government were to be annual for forty-nine years. The lords were to keep title to their lands, including that portion – perhaps half – that had been given to the commune.

Many freed serfs, especially in the fertile agricultural regions in the southern provinces, felt that they did not get all the land that had been promised them. Some serf communities failed to receive forested areas or access to a river and were forced to bargain with their former lords for access to these. According to one source, the former serfs received 18 percent less land than they had been promised, and 42 percent of the former serfs received allotments of land insufficient to maintain their families. note84

Some former serfs rioted, including some who believed that the real emancipation decree was being kept from them by their former lord. Some other former serfs accepted their situation with what a Russian prince, Peter Kropotkin, described as their "inborn good nature." Kropotkin described their servility disappearing and talking to their masters as equals.

Alexander II, meanwhile, had earned the title Tsar-Liberator.


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